Tuesday, 13 December 2016

St Lucy’s Day: The Year’s Deep Midnight

 
 

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day 

by John Donne

 
 
St lucy 3
 
 

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
         The sun is spent, and now his flasks
         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.
 
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
         For I am every dead thing,
         In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
                For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.
 
All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
         I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
         Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
                Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.
 
But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
         Were I a man, that I were one
         I needs must know; I should prefer,
                If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.
 
But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
         At this time to the Goat is run
         To fetch new lust, and give it you,
                Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

 
Saint Lucy 1
 


commentary: The estimable Poetry Foundation website has the following tags for this poem:
Living
Death
Disappointment & Failure
Growing Old
Time & Brevity
Religion
Christianity.

I’m not sure I can add anything to that. It’s famously a difficult poem, and I don’t claim to understand it fully, or to know what John Donne intended us to take from it. But at the darkest time of the year, and when others are celebrating St Lucy’s Day as a festival of light, this undoubtedly gloomy poem is stunningly beautiful, and can be strangely comforting.

At the day’s deep midnight, the poet shares his very private and agonized feelings, which resonate down the years: ancient language but humanity for all time. No wonder his most famous line is ‘No Man is an island.’

John Donne lived from 1573 to 1631 (bridging from Shakespeare to Milton) and his Wikipedia entry is very helpful.

A nocturne or nocturnal is a poem on a night scene – John Donne was the first to use the word in this way, about this poem.

The altarpiece picture of St Lucy is from the Walter’s Art Museum.

The picture by Gurbinati shows a chorus of young women singing to celebrate St Lucy’s Day – you often see a young woman with candles on her head for the celebration, as in the middle of this picture and the one above.

Saint Lucy 2


10 comments:

  1. I love this poem. Read it for A-level with a brilliant teacher, who adored John Donne. I've loved him ever since. Mr. Simmonds thought that the poem was a meditation on the death of Donne's wife. As thoughts on love and death that makes a lot of sense to me. Whatever it's about, it's a wonderful poem.

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    1. Lucky you - a great literature teacher is a wonderful thing to have. And yes, such a lovely poem.

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  2. There's such depth to this poem, isn't there, Moira? Such richness, too. And I think that's part of why it's not entirely clear exactly what Donne's message is. There's so much to meditate on, and I'm glad he tackled sadder, darker topics, even at this time of year. They are a part of the human existence, too, if I can put it that way.

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    1. Yes indeed. And somehow I find such strong feelings coming down the years a comfort.

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  3. I have loved John Donne, since I studied the Metaphysical Poets as an undergraduate. What a poet! What a man!

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    1. Oh yes. I loved him when I was an undergraduate (though I wasn't doing anything remotely art-y) and have loved him ever since. And will read this poem every year.

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  4. "In occultism, this is the luminous fifth element (invisible to ordinary sight) or essence, which was seen as binding together in union or pact the other four elements (earth, air, fire, water).
    The fifth essence is the ultimate substance, without a formal name, but intrinsically related to the other four essences, air, fire, water and earth."

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    1. Thank you for the information, which I do not think I understand!

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  5. I remember reading this poem in college, but I was much too young to get from it what I get now. Very moving. And part of what makes it so impressive is the elusive interpretation. You can read yourself into it.

    On a slightly less elevated note, I remember in my (Catholic) elementary school St. Lucy's was one of the favorite holy cards to get. She usually was shown with her eyeballs on a plate.

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    1. Yes - St Lucy is either light or cut out eyes. I know which I would choose, always...

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